Introducing our newest policy associate, Abigail Ham, who makes a strong case that “climate havens” are a harmful fiction.
Growing up in northeastern Vermont, extreme weather was rare. Natural disasters were a faraway concept and even the hottest month of summer typically didn’t average above 80℉. Despite endless news coverage of disasters in other parts of the world, global warming didn’t feel like an urgent problem. Shoveling snow to clear the driveway after an April snowstorm, we even joked that we wouldn’t mind if the globe warmed a little.
That was before 2011, when flash flooding from Tropical Storm Irene pushed streams and rivers over their banks, damaging 500 miles of roads and 200 bridges across Vermont, stranding some towns and destroying homes and businesses. But even after the state cleaned up from Irene, the myth of climate immunity persisted. Popularly billed as a “climate haven,” Vermont is the best-ranked state on Safehome.org’s Climate Change Risk Index and took second place on the Policygenius Best & Worst States for Climate Change Index.
Unfortunately, the catastrophic rainstorms that hit Vermont in July 2023 didn’t consult those lists before dumping five to ten inches of rain across the state in a week – more rain had fallen by July 16 than can typically be expected to fall in the entire month. The resulting flooding damaged roads across the state, temporarily cut off some towns, devastated businesses, dealt a blow to local farms and added strain to the state’s existing housing struggles.
A full account of the damage will take months or even years to complete, but the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information has listed the July flooding across Vermont and New Hampshire as a disaster with a potential price tag of $1 billion or more. The damage rivaled and in some places surpassed that of Tropical Storm Irene, which ultimately cost Vermont about $850 million. For a state with just 645,000 residents, that’s a serious bill.
Nevertheless, with floodwater and national media attention both having receded, I can’t help but wonder if Vermonters will go back to believing that the state is some kind of “haven.” It’s easy to do, not because the memory of the flooding will fade, but because it will be replaced at the front of our minds by the next extreme weather headline – likely, a story from somewhere in the world where the effects of climate change are hitting harder and faster.
Watching this story unfold in my home state over the past two months has left me wondering: Are “climate havens” even real? And how does believing they exist – whether in the place we live now or somewhere we’re eyeing for a future escape – affect our ability to focus on present action?
Teddy Roosevelt once called comparison a thief of joy, but in this case it’s a thief of reality. When those of us who live in relatively climate-safe places allow ourselves to think of the effects of climate change only in terms of the most recent headline – as a problem primarily about once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes for other people, perhaps in places like Florida or New Orleans or the Pacific islands where the climate change alarms are flashing red – we render the threat abstract and remote.
But climate change is here and now, and pretending otherwise doesn’t help. Pretending just lets us off the hook for the ways in which our communities contribute to the problem, undermining the collective sense of responsibility that is necessary to power an effective global response to climate change.
Some places will be hit harder, and sooner, by the effects of climate change than others. But that doesn’t change the reality that all places will be affected. Even if places like Vermont could accurately claim to be immune to extreme weather, in a world as interconnected as ours, a disaster in one place inevitably ripples out to all through its effects on the supply chain, migration patterns and global peace and security.
The idea of “climate havens” is an escapist fiction that robs us not only of a clear view of reality, but also of chances to give the places we love a better shot. We can’t run away from the problem – not to Vermont or anywhere else. Understanding that should be motivating.
With that motivation, maybe we can stop asking “how can I get away from this problem?” and start asking “what could I be doing right here, right now to make a difference?” Maybe we can start asking focused, present questions like: How could my community be more energy-efficient? What could we do to create less waste? How could we incentivize ridesharing or active transportation? Questions like these inspire individual and collective action – and that’s what the climate threat demands.
Policy Associate, Frontier Group
Abigail is a policy associate with Frontier Group. Abigail lives in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she enjoys long walks and reading on the beach.
Managing Director, Frontier Group; Senior Vice President, The Public Interest Network
Susan directs Frontier Group, the research and policy development center for The Public Interest Network. Frontier Group’s work informs the public discussion about degradations to the environment and public health, threats to consumer rights and democracy, and the available routes to a better future. Susan lives in Santa Barbara, California; she has two children, a husband, and a dog, and is an amateur singer/songwriter.